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School’s Out for Summers

Harvard’s president didn’t get expelled so much for his ideology as for his naïveté. And the university would do well to pick a Larry 2.0 next.


Illustration by C. Michael Frey  

When I met the president of Harvard last July, and a fellow alumnus introduced me as a founder of Spy magazine, I witnessed both Larry Summers’s famously preternatural knack for factual recall and his taste for provocative plainspokenness. “Ah, Spy,” he said, “I remember that list you published”—four column inches seventeen years earlier—“of people who Judy Miller had slept with.”

My friend and I were more interested, however, in getting his take on his difficult winter and spring—that is, the contretemps he’d provoked over the question of whether men’s and women’s respective abilities in science might be partly innate. Summers told us that the whole affair had shown him that Harvard students were far more up for intellectual rough-and-tumble than the Harvard faculty, confident and sporting enough to bat around ideas that challenged received wisdom. He seemed chastened but not exactly contrite—glad to have his punishment (the faculty’s no-confidence vote) and penance (apologies, a new $50 million budget line intended to make Harvard female-friendlier) behind him. Harvard’s governing board was just about to give him a $17,000 raise. He had missed the bullet.

But it turned out the bullet was still ricocheting wildly. Just a week later, the one person of color on the Harvard board resigned over the salary increase and the president’s general insensitivity. And now Summers has finally got whacked: He will resign in June and take a year-long sabbatical, after which he can return as a university professor, rejoining the faculty that just purged him to teach in whichever departments he chooses. Fuck you, Larry —and hey, welcome back! Such are the politics of academia.

‘’I don’t think of leadership as a popularity contest,” Summers said two years into his presidency, but his boasts about his popularity among undergraduates were evidently accurate. On the eve of his resignation, a Harvard Crimson poll of students found that only 30 percent disapproved of him, and a mere 19 percent wanted him to resign. “I really never saw the big deal about his outspokenness,” a recent female graduate told me. “He certainly was rude at times, and a very bumbling public speaker, but he was refreshing.” Moreover, it seems as if much of the university faculty weren’t dead-set on his ouster either.

So why was he forced out after a scant five years? His last two predecessors served ten and twenty years, respectively, and the only Harvard president with a shorter tenure died on the job.

It wasn’t only, or maybe even mainly, his profoundly impolitic, pointedly un-lefty politics. Yes, he made enemies from the very beginning when, during a meeting with senior black faculty, he is said to have remarked that “the jury’s out” on the virtues of affirmative action. And he made many more enemies that first fall when he suggested to Afro-American Studies professor Cornel West that he lacked seriousness, and drove him to leave Harvard. “His attack on me was the wrong person, the wrong professor, and the wrong Negro,” Professor West said, later adding for good measure about Harvard’s first Jewish president: “Larry Summers strikes me as the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” And his popularity in Cambridge kept sinking when he reportedly dated the hard-core Republican pundit Laura Ingraham; said that a silver lining of 9/11 was to “reignite our sense of patriotism” which is “a word . . . used too infrequently in communities such as this university community”; went out of his way to support the ROTC; and accused anti-Israeli activists of being de facto anti-Semites.

Then, after two years of relative calm, he saw fit to remind a conference of Native American scholars that “the vast majority” of 250 years of Indian genocide was the result of disease, an unintended consequence of the natives’ “assimilation”—tragic rather than evil. And a few months later he made his comments about gender-linked aptitude—the great big picnic-skunk at a conference called “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.”

Quite a run of troublemaking. But though Summers seemed weirdly unable or unwilling to moderate the volume control on his bullhorn, his major faux pas all tended to conform to Michael Kinsley’s definition of “gaffe”—i.e., “when a politician tells the truth.” Plenty of supporters of affirmative action harbor ambivalence about it; West, with a Website home page devoted mainly to promoting his rap CD (“It feels so good you hardly notice that it’s good for you”) is goofy; in academia, antipathy to Israel can get ugly; it was disease that decimated the Indians; and an unwillingness to consider that certain aptitudes might be biologically gender-linked amounts to a kind of religious taboo on open inquiry.

To the degree that it was his reflexive candor that made Summers radioactive and finally untenable in Cambridge, it’s a little disheartening to those of us who believe in maximum intellectual freedom—particularly during a week when the Danish cartoons remain unprintable, and Austria sent the pathetic British Holocaust denier to prison for three years.


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